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  Comments (0) Total Wednesday Apr. 23, 2014
Notes From the Border, Part II
Out Of Bounds
We all find those places on the planet that speak to us. Montana is that way for many. The now over-used cliché, “Last Best Place,” nails it. This place means so much more to those who live and play here. It is a sort of spiritual home.

I’ve moved around a bit in my life, including two separate moves to Montana – my now annual move back to the state for the summer not included.

Moving around comes with pros and cons. I’ve been able to get to know a variety of places, but none with the intimacy of a life-long resident. I’ve come to terms with this trade off, as it’s too late to undo the last 25 years of moving around.

Of all the places I’ve lived, the one that continues to linger with a resonance nearly as strong as that Montana Mojo is Arizona. I lived in Flagstaff for six years, and was able to play and travel across the state. Ultimately, I fell in love with the southeast corner of Arizona. It’s Mearns’ quail country, and I am obsessed with it.

If you’ve visited Arizona, but haven’t traveled far from the usual tourist destinations, this country may surprise you. As you drive south from Tucson you gain elevation. Mearns’ hang out in canyons along the border in country roughly 5,000 feet high. This part of the state is also far enough south and east that it gets a kiss of moisture every summer from monsoon rains traveling inland from the Gulf of Mexico. The elevation and consistent rain change the country, and as you drive south from Tucson the Saguaros of the Sonoran Desert give way to Oak-bunchgrass savanna. It really doesn’t look like Arizona anymore. The closest equivalent I can think of is the central coast of California.

The country provides habitat for a variety of wildlife that’s found only in the borderlands. Mearns’ are what draw me. These quail are grassland specialists, and hold tighter for pointing dogs than any other game bird in North America.

There are other oddities along the border. Celebrated big game writer Jack O’Conner described Coues white-tailed deer as possibly the most difficult big game animal on the continent due to its wariness and the tough terrain.

Coues (correctly pronounced “cows,” though most folks say “coos”) look just like the whitetail that roam the Northern Rockies, except they’re half the size. Bucks rarely exceed 100 pounds; does 60. It’s rare to see these deer when out hunting quail. When spooked, they look like big yellow Labs with antlers bounding out across the grassland.

It’s more common to spot Coues along the roads, transfixed in your headlights as you drive back to camp.

There’s also the Gould’s turkey, the largest subspecies in North America. Gould’s resemble Merriam’s turkey, only with longer, taller legs. The species is rare north of the border, but plentiful in Old Mexico. Arizona has been actively working on a restoration program. It’s fairly common now to spot Gould’s on the hillsides around camp, or at least hear them. The reintroduction program has been successful enough that limited hunts are now allowed.

But the animal I’ve never encountered along the border, but someday hope to, is the jaguar. These big cats may have once roamed as far north as the Grand Canyon, but are now only an occasional visitor to Arizona. The first contemporary sighting of a jaguar in the United States was a big cat treed by a lion hunter’s dogs more than a decade ago. Since then, motion sensitive cameras scattered about the Sky Island mountain ranges have captured images of additional jaguars, the only cat in Western Hemisphere that roars.

I don’t think there’s any chance I’ll ever see one of these cats in the wild. I’ve only spotted a mountain lion in the field once, and those cats are everywhere. But maybe one night, while I’m sitting around a campfire sucking the last bit of quail meat from its fragile bones, I’ll get to hear that roar off in the distance.

Maybe not last or best, but the borderlands are a place well worth visiting.
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